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Zandy Hillis-Starr

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Back to Cool Careers in Science
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Photo of Zandy Hillis-Starr Meet Zandy Hillis-Starr.

She's a biologist on a Caribbean Island paradise. Zandy's cool career in science lets her swim with sea turtles. She plays an important part in keeping hawksbill turtles from becoming extinct (and making the planet a better place for us all). How cool is that?!
Question Why did you decide to become a biologist?
Answer There was never any doubt about that one. Raised by a family of generations of doctors, dentists and nurses -- learning how natural things worked was the norm. Our house was full of books about people, animals, fish and the ocean. Parents and grandparents were naturalists, campers, sailors, bird watchers/Audubon and avid swimmers and beach-goers. We all played outdoors -- TV was usually just a rainy day back-up activity. By the time I was ten, I was busy with dogs, cats, an aquarium full of exotic fish, raising mice in the basement and rehabilitating any animal I found hurt. My mom and dad both supported every crazy animal scheme and provided me with every opportunity to learn a new skill and master it -- boating/sailing, scuba diving, horseback riding, camping, swimming. Which makes me sound like a tomboy, but I also studied ballet, typing and enjoyed academics. I would have to say a well-rounded education and training throughout my life have provided me with the skills necessary to be a biologist.
Question What do you do during a typical day at work?
Answer Try and organize my desk! As the Resource Management Specialist for Buck Island Reef National Monument, I am responsible for the natural resources of an island ecosystem, land and water, and the interactions of our visiting public with those resources. There is no typical day at work. Usually I have planned for either an office day or field day, or a combination of both. My office is in the town of Christiansted at the NPS Christiansted National Historic Site, an old Danish Fort, circa 1848. I could be working on my computer and visitors to the historic site walking around outside my windows would look in and wonder how the old Danish soldiers managed to have computers before anyone else! I could be compiling field notes, entering data into databases for sea turtles, coral reef, or a tree restoration project, or writing purchase orders to get fuel for the boat. What few biologists learn in school is how to manage their biology. We all learn to see what is going on in the world around us, but no one teaches us how to get the funds to get there! These are the things we learn on the job.

If I am out in the field, first we have to get to the boat and drive 25 minutes out to Buck Island Reef. Boat-handling skills are essential to this job. If we have planned for a day of juvenile hawksbill turtles surveys, we will tie the boat up to a mooring in the park, put on our snorkel gear and head off snorkeling along the reef looking for turtles. We could be in the water for up to two hours and not see a single turtle! Which reminds us we are looking for an endangered animal and there are not too many left in the world. We are lucky at Buck Island Reef that there are a number of hawksbill turtles left to study. If we see a turtle, we will attempt to catch it only if we need to see it up close for our studies. Otherwise, we just watch it and see how it lives on the reef, what it's doing -- feeding, sleeping, etc.

After our turtle snorkel we return to the boat and head back to St. Croix. Either that day or the next we will enter the data we collected on the turtles into a computer database that helps us analyze the hawksbill turtle population at Buck Island Reef. This data helps me answer questions about hawksbill turtles that are important to a great number of people from the Virgin Islands to Washington, D.C., and around the world -- people and agencies involved in protecting and preserving sea turtles.
Question What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything about it you don't like?
Answer I believe there are few people who actually can say they are "responsible" (within the limits of their job) for an entire ecosystem. This is a very exciting aspect of my work. I was trained as a marine biologist, but I have to be knowledgeable about the islands' plants, birds, beaches and all the recreational activities that take place there, as well as the problems, like tree rats, a non-native pest that is damaging the islands plants and animals. With the help of experts, I try to find solutions to these problems. The best thing of all is working with the animals, sharing these adventures with people and teaching people about the natural world. What I like least of all is the paper work! But without the reports and articles, I couldn't get the message out to the people who need to know about the sea turtles, coral reefs and beaches.
Question If I'm a student thinking about a career in biology, what can I do now to prepare?
Answer Don't be afraid to ask. Ask your teachers, parents and friends any questions that come to mind about science, not just biology. Look things up in books. Take photographs and draw pictures of plants and animals. Study the details of the world around us. And, if you have the opportunity, learn as many skills as you can -- like canoeing, swimming, biking, hiking/camping, boating, photography, typing, etc. The list is never-ending. Find volunteer projects to help the environment and do them. And read.
Question Is there anything else you'd like to let Frontiers viewers know about yourself or your career?
Answer A lot of it has been luck. My family started us kids early exploring and adventuring. I was fortunate to have first visited the Virgin Islands when I was five years old, and our family came back to the islands almost every year. So I guess you could say I have saltwater in my blood. But I took advantage of those opportunities and learned as much as I could about the islands, the sea and the sea life on every trip. All those adventures to the islands and the knowledge I gained are still helping me today, as well as believing in myself and not letting the challenges overwhelm me. Never be afraid to say you don't know, but you'll find out. And listen. It is amazing what you can learn by simply listening.

If you would like to know more about Zandy Hillis-Starr, you can read her biography and check out the questions she answered for Science in Paradise (Show 901) in the Ask the Scientists section.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.